Spurs looking for marginal gains
Sports psychologist Gary Leboff returns with his fortnightly column, analysing the latest issues in the Premier League. This week, why Tottenham's victory at Old Trafford can only be the start for Andre Villas-Boas if he is to succeed in England...
It was a stunning result for Tottenham at the weekend. Their Premier League record at Old Trafford was nothing short of wretched, but Andre Villas-Boas is a manager desperately in need of vindication.
His summer appointment was met with a distinctly lukewarm reception from the White Hart Lane faithful. Given the boot by Chelsea in March, Villas-Boas' reputation was hardly boosted when his erstwhile charges lifted the Champions League trophy barely ten weeks later.
Victory at Old Trafford represents a minor triumph for the Portuguese, a small step on the road to redemption. And in the world of sport, it is these small steps that catch the eye of the professionals. Now let's change disciplines for a second…
Far and away the most successful team in the history of British Sport is UK Cycling. Not only have they wiped the floor with the opposition at the last two Olympic Games – winning no less than 17 gold medals – but the team provided the springboard for Bradley Wiggins' epic victory at this year's Tour De France.
At the helm of UK Cycling is Performance Director Dave Brailsford. Taking over the squad at a time when the sport was rife with doping, Brailsford declared that the only way to address the 15% 'advantage' enjoyed by the drug cheats was through what he termed 'the aggregation of Marginal Gains'.
Marginal gains are incremental improvements that are identified and achieved across the board. In the case of cycling, marginal gains can be uncovered in the shape of better bikes, helmets, conditioning and mindset. Brailsford embarked on an exhaustive search for such gains, seeking out tiny improvements that would ultimately transform his squad from also-rans to worldbeaters.
Football, as usual, is lagging behind. The game is riddled with 'old school' thinking, managers reluctant to adopt the lessons of sports science because it didn’t exist in 'my day'. Given the choice – adapt or die – extinction appears to be the preferred option.
Villas-Boas is different. Success at Porto was so emphatic that he seemed unwilling to adapt on arrival at Stamford Bridge. The traumatic experience at Chelsea has changed all that, a new flexibility has appeared in his attitude, a willingness to try different ways of working.
In short, Spurs' head coach is on the look-out for marginal gains. He is bent on reshaping Tottenham from a free-flowing unit prone to crazy defeats into a side with the skill and resolve to defeat potential top-four rivals in their own backyard.
It’s a challenging task. Small wins and marginal gains are not enough for frustrated fans or, come to that, for Spurs’ chairman Daniel Levy. Only a major triumph will justify an appointment that still perplexes many in North London.
Villa-Boas must not disappoint. One failure in the capital may not be terminal but another would permanently tarnish his managerial reputation. Victory at Old Trafford was Villas-Boas' best result in English football to date. Others had better follow - and soon.
Gary Leboff is one of the UK's leading sports psychologists. He has worked with numerous Premier League clubs and players from 12 different international squads. Visit Gary’s website at www.garyleboff.co.uk
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